A young Guatemalan woman is six months pregnant and is sitting atop the rusted metal roof of a freight train. She has one arm draped over her stomach, and her other arm is holding her 16 month old daughter tightly against her side. Around her and along the length of the moving train’s rooftop are hundreds of pre-teen boys and girls from Central America. They are sitting, or hopping between the cars, or gripping on to bars on the side of the carts as the train caterpillars through a concrete town in southern Mexico.
They are not riding atop of the train for kicks. Some will fall off and have an arm, leg, or torso grated off between the wheels and the tracks. Others will be assaulted in the night. Many will merely get sunburnt. But all on this train are headed north, to the United States, because of various beliefs: the U.S. is a system of better things; there is family; there is some form of opportunity. One thing is certain: if they can survive this trek through Mexico from Central America, they will then face the prospect of actually crossing from Mexico into the States.
Many will make it to northern Mexico, then pay anywhere between several hundred to several thousand dollars to a coyote, a human smuggler, who will then do whatever it takes to get the immigrants across the belief system of the border line and into the United States. They're packed up in vans with no air-conditioning, stacked between bags of manure in a semi-bed, piled into a trunk with other sweating, dehydrated strangers. If the migrants are not exploited or trafficked into the drug or sex trade by the coyote or a cartel (or both), they will then face the harshness of the land upon getting in to the United States.
Many of the young immigrants will be funneled through Texas, where they will encounter the Mexico--U.S. border wall. It is a literal wall that appears as a rusted rib cage poking awkwardly out the riverbanks for hundreds of miles along the Rio Grande River. It is an abysmally expensive symbolic gesture of separation and alienation to the foreigner on a land built by native blood, by those who were either already here, were literally shipped, or who voluntarily exploited their labors for citizenship.
Once the wall is easily traversed, miles of rust colored desert and harsh brush-lands will be crossed. Wild animals, gun-wielding ranchers, and little to zero water resources veil the journey. Dehydrated, if not dead, by the time many of the immigrants have made it to this point in South Texas, the sight of a dollar bill colored Border Patrol uniform becomes a blessing for the willing.
The majority of these immigrants are detained by the Border Patrol. The immigrants are often times found dehydrated, or dead, sulking in cloudless, 100-degree weather. Once detained, they are then legally processed at a Border Patrol holding facility, where Central American immigrants are then released, often times to meet with family currently living in the states, before an arraigned court hearing due to an immigration act signed by former President Bush in 2008 meant to curb human trafficking.
The bewildering narrative is all too real, and one that I hear often in my hometown, McAllen, the South Texas town where tens of thousands of the Central American immigrants will eventually be processed. The story of a mother riding atop a train into the unknown of the north is a personal recounting given to me firsthand by the woman who survived to tell it. I met this woman while volunteering at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where thousands of Central American Immigrants have been temporarily received for humanitarian aid after their processing at the southern McAllen Border Patrol facility. Many of the young immigrants entering these church doors carry a journey behind them that quietly echoes this woman’s story. And many will enter a cultural climate that thrives with harsh, faux belief systems that devalue, disregard, or de-humanize their very lives.
In this growing metropolitan area surrounding McAllen, a predominantly Hispanic culture glows amidst the day-to-day life of a huge working class population. As with other mid-sized cities in the United States, chain restaurants are locked along main streets and Wal-Marts thrive. Rural areas exist in this region, but it is in no way is the dust-bowl commercialized on “reality” television shows like Border Wars.
It is on this soil where I have lived nearly my entire life as a citizen born on “this side” of the Rio Grande River.
* * *
In the morning sunlight, the silhouette of a crucifix sits atop the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, a brick building with ruby and deep blue stained glass windows columned along its walls. Located on the corner of 15th street and Dallas Ave in the city of McAllen, TX, the Church recently has opened its doors to provide humanitarian relief for the wave of Central American migrants who have crossed the U.S.--Mexico border.
The increase of Central American immigrants, specifically through the U.S.--Mexico border, has been labeled a “flood”, an “invasion”, and all sorts of colorful descriptors (that deal with people of color) by many media outlets. Many of these media outlets often still embrace and spray the label of “illegal” on to these immigrants, although how any human being may be “illegal” (an act might be illegal - but a person?) has always traversed my own train of thought.
The increase in Central American migration, though, is a reality. The area of South Texas, for example, has experienced a 189%, increase of unaccompanied migrant children since last year, with apprehensions being listed roughly over 42,000 in the 2014 year alone.
Since June of this year, I have volunteered at Sacred Heart multiple times. Every experience, whether it be for one hour or a half-day, weighs deep. Volunteering involves several services - from organizing piles of used, donated clothing to guiding the newly arrived immigrants through the facility to receive water, food, clothing, sanitary needs, and, sometimes, legal counseling on border policies by lawyers who have also volunteered their time.
The food, clothing, hygiene products, and labor that keeps this center alive is largely donated by a supportive community who have not let their emotions become political. The good will of the Church and its volunteers - often not even practitioners of Catholicism - have done a phenomenal job of empathizing and coming to the aid of the migrants, who are often only within the facility for only a handful of hours on end.
Outside of Sacred Heart, courageous non-profits like La Union de Pueblo Entero have helped facilitate and organize local movements to increase awareness for humanitarian aid for the young immigrants within the cultural sphere of South Texas. Because many of these immigrants are unable to be immediately processed and returned in a timely manner, there is a huge demand for housing, as many are left unable to connect with family currently in the states.
One non-profit organization, BCFS, opened a temporary housing facility in a nearby city of Harlingen, TX, but the facility has since become cramped with the huge influx of immigrant children. As a result, BCFS attempted to purchase a larger space - the outdated Palm-Aire Hotel in Weslaco, TX, located conveniently between the cities of McAllen and Harlingen. The two-story hotel, built in the 1980s and initially meant to cater to economically conscious patrons in the height of its days, is now a shell of its former vision and in need of major repair. BCFS’s plan was to invest non-government funds to drastically renovate the property and convert it to a temporary housing facility that would immediately take in Central American immigrants between the ages of 12 - 17 years old. Each stay was projected to last no longer than two weeks, and while there, immigrants would be provided with basic shelter as well as access to psychological counseling, case-management, and medical services.
However, this did not happen. I recall how it all unraveled as one of the most disheartening domino tumbles of misguided media sharing on my Facebook and twitter feeds. Media hawks at the Drudge Report and Fox News caught site of the plan and produced reports webbed with embellishing descriptions of the Palm-Aire being a posh luxury resort where the children would spend a two a ‘two-week vacation’ on the tab of the tax-payer - the later detail staggeringly false; the former adorned with gross political rhetoric. The news was spun and many politically and emotionally charged audiences fell prey. None were perhaps as great a victim as the children, though, who are still without the facility due to BCFS’s consequential decision to pull its plans to purchase the hotel out of fear for community backlash, again, falsely fueled by the rhetorical arson of the media.
I have volunteered enough to experience and speak with many immigrants first hand. They are women, children - some teens, but the majority are youth. Often times the women are pregnant. These are people who do not fit the tattoo covered, muscular, and head shaven brand of the MS-13 gang member that the mainstream media perpetuates, allegedly “exploiting” the migrant influx to get into the United States, as many a Murrieta, California protester would have one believe. While there is no doubt there that this could happen, that gangs or cartels are ‘sneaking in’ amongst the child immigrant influx (though there is no evidence), it is simply not the overwhelming reality, and it is far from a crisis. The conception of the gang and blood hungry immigrant flood is a branded belief system of anti-immigration vocal pieces that has become invasive to the U.S. social consciousness. It is a myth.
Yet, another belief system about the Central American immigration influx has risen. ‘News’ stories of unaccompanied minors bringing viruses and diseases with them have infested the paranoid consciousness of the anti-immigrant narrative. Pictures of shirtless, random men, usually falsely listed as “Border Patrol agents” have circulated the web, with these bodies covered in ash colored sores or blotches of pink rashes or boils on their skin. The motive behind these stories is clear, to make it seem like these third world immigrants are “brining diseases”. The reality is often lice, at best. Fact checked or not (often times, not at all) this narrative has embraced the myth of the diseased immigrant -- one that has re-surfaced from the dead, apparently.
Despite this particular belief system, though, many of these children are coming from countries like Guatemala, where, despite a harsh socio-economic climate, they are very likely to receive vaccinations. One subtle irony about the belief system of the ‘diseased immigrant’, particularly within Texas, is these vaccinated minors are then entering into a state which has high rates of un-vaccinated children due to conservative policies on health-care. Additionally, while at Sacred Heart or other humanitarian aid centers, immigrants are provided with the opportunity to visit doctors and health practitioners for health screenings and checkups. In other words, when I actually volunteer at Sacred Heart Church, I am more likely to catch something from a Texas born volunteer passing me a fresh set of latex gloves than I am from a Guatemalan infant who’s palm I high-five before I slide on my glove.
This past week at Sacred Heart, I helped patron a family that consisted of a 16-month-old girl and a woman, four months pregnant - the woman whose narrative I shared above. In between short exchanges in broken Spanish, the two-piece family appeared fatigued and understandably confused, but relieved and grateful for the unexpected services provided on behalf of the good will and muscle of volunteers.
The woman is from Guatemala, a country that has become a major exporter of cocaine to the United States. As a result, the country’s socio-economic climate has devolved into one of poverty and fear, bruised by cartel related violence. The cartel situation and the gross unbridled system of literally murderous competition (capitalism in its rawest state) is largely attributed not only to the brute demand the United States has for illegal drugs, but also by the faux “war on drugs” the U.S. and Mexico have perpetuated over the past decade, which has resulted in many cartels shifting their focus to central American countries.
The reality of living in Guatemala, to this woman, is one she was born into and had quickly learned to live with, or to survive in. In this case, she made the decision that the best way to stay alive in her home country was simply not to be in it.
While she sipped on chicken noodle soup, I asked her in the best of my broken Spanish why she was here, and if the belief that escaping gang violence was true to her. Her eyes widened, and she nodded her head. She then asserted she was here for family. She wants to work, she told me, for "them."
She did not deny that Guatemala was harsh, but her desire to achieve better, more, is a belief that has bloomed within her, and possibly within the tens of thousands of immigrants who have embarked on the migration north - and survived.
Unfortunately, the plight of this woman’s narrative is rarely heard, often lost in the bloated political rhetoric that adorns “border politics.” The influx of immigrants has turned cities like McAllen, TX, where a huge percentage of these migrants are being detained temporarily, into exploitive political opportunity - fuel to start fires of fear meant to burn out narratives or immigration reforms that offer pathways to citizenship.
Since June of this year, the sphere of South Texas has seen perhaps a more effectual invasion of sorts. Sean Hannity, Michelle Bachmann, Glenn Beck, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, and many other conservative demigods have made politically motivated visits to the Sacred Heart volunteer center and toured the Border Patrol immigrant detainment facility. The various parties have shown up to absurd fan fare as well as protest. Glenn Beck’s visit was perhaps most bizarre and most inconsistent amidst the narrative of his peers, as he made it a point to barbecue hundreds of pounds of donated meat for the children, much to the fan fare of confused locals. And yet, each of these listed have all selectively reported half-truths of the area. Some have even purposely been photographed posing along the banks of the Rio Grande River in lumpy, strap laden body armor to perpetuate the belief that gun-toting cartels are now running amok due to the Border Patrol’s distraction with the unaccompanied minors crossing the border.
Alas, this hugely popular and widely unproven belief system of huge spikes in cartel spillover has resulted in bizarre consequences. Texas Governor Rick Perry has perpetuated this myth that has now resulted in a brushfire of fear amongst a huge population of Texans who are now embracing Perry’s latest, arguably political maneuver that is meant to quell the faux violence: the ordering of 1000 National Guards to be placed along the South Texas border to compensate for the Border Patrol’s "consumed time in dealing with the unaccompanied immigrant children" - a full on militarization of the border.
The militarization of the South Texas border will allegedly cost roughly twelve million dollars a month. Governor Perry has willed this upon the community of South Texas. Local economists argue it will harm the financial health of the area. Many within local police and Border Patrol have also publicly questioned the grossly unnecessary presence of the military guards being trucked down to combat alleged cartels running amok in the area. I use the best of my imaginative muscle to ponder this as I strap a tiny velcro shoe onto the foot of the 16-month-old Guatemalan girl. She still has dust caked on her skin, having just entered Sacred Heart with her mother. The girl’s skin is the color of a dark peach, like my own.
This is not the first time the militarization of the South Texas border has taken place. In 1997, amidst a sea of fear regarding cartel and drug smuggling, Navy Seals were placed in Redford, a small south Texas border town, unbeknownst to the community of cattle farmers that resided in town. On May 20th of that year, 18 year-old Esequiel Hernandez Jr. embarked on his day to tend to his families livestock, a herd of goats, and brought with him a rifle to take warning shots at stray dogs and snakes. In an awful twist of fate, Hernandez was shot and killed by the camouflaged Seals who mis-interpreted his presence and weapon as threatening. Hernandez became the first U.S. citizen killed by a U.S. Military force on his own home soil since the Kent State Shootings in 1970. Hernandez’s death hit the media waves, but soon predictably downplayed into the toilet vortex of theatrical political rhetoric. Hernandez’s controversial and unnecessary death poses a powerful talking point, one that presents serious ramifications on the militarization of the border and its consequences.
I leave Sacred Heart’s volunteer center in the evening, walking home on a warm sidewalk. I pull out a stick of melted gum and peel back the foil, pinching and pulling off the starry specks of paper mushed into the stick. I have not washed my hands, and I put the gum in my mouth, then comb my hand through my hair. As I round the corner of the Church, I hear a faint buzzing above, and when I look up, I see the neon cross is on.
Perhaps if more U.S. citizens embraced, or explored, a history of its people, rather than a history of its state, the belief systems that fuel anti-immigration policy reform will recede, relax, or even die in myth. In a country historically rooted in being founded by those who have uprooted themselves, it is bizarre to not want to empathize with these immigrants. Perhaps if more of us explored these historical and cultural depths -- the depths of our own peoples’ histories as well as the histories of others coming here -- many would not continue to alienate, classify, and exploit (at best) the good-willed immigrant.